A Story About a Band of Brothers
Recently I was driving around town listening to The Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM Radio. It’s a great channel for Fab Four fans like me, but every now and then they will play a cover of a Beatles song that makes me want to puncture my ear drums with a skewer.
It’s right about then that I switch over to 105.7 The Fan.
On this particular occasion, 10AM-2PM talking head Vinny Cerrato discussed troubled players with poor work ethics.
I thought of that skewer again.
Cerrato summarily dismissed all such players, and insinuated that they are who they are and they aren’t capable of change. To put a bow on his argument, Cerrato went metaphorical on his listeners concluding, “A leopard can’t change his spots.”
That may be true of a leopard, but I detest the notion that people can’t change. It undermines the greatest of innate human qualities. Sometimes they just need to be enabled by the right people, with proper guidance. You only need to want to change.
Let that resonate for a moment…
Two weekends ago I journeyed up to New York City to visit an old high school friend with a couple of high school buddies, Joe Stumbroski and Craig Wehr. We all spent our formative years at Archbishop Curley High School. We’ve all gone in different directions as it relates to our careers, but there’s something about Curley that keeps us grounded, it keeps us united by a seemingly unbreakable bond. We are a band of brothers.
You know there’s an interesting phenomenon of sorts here in Baltimore. When someone asks, “Where did you go to school?”, the knee-jerk response is to immediately recite the name of your high school.
I’ve worked for out-of-town companies; traveled the country meeting new friends and colleagues. Wherever I’ve gone the person asking the question expected you to share the name of your college, not your high school.
They don’t get it.
And they didn’t go to Curley.
I’ve heard a few theories on why Baltimoreans respond to the school question the way we do. Some theories are insightful, while a few can be downright insulting. But regardless of the rationale, on-point or not, generally speaking, those native to Charm City have strong ties to their high schools and their classmates. That’s just the way it is.
As we traveled northbound to The Big Apple on Amtrak to see our friend, we caught up on the latest and greatest in each of our respective lives, including but not limited to wives, kids, jobs, the Ravens and Orioles, Donald Trump and the time we hooked school during mini-mester and had a party at a baseball buddy’s house in Edgemere.
A couple hours of reminiscing seemed like minutes and before you knew it, we were pulling into the bowels of Madison Square Garden. We had arrived at Penn Station. The hustle and bustle was on, as we avoided a cabbie trying to rip us off, flagged an honorable taxi driver and headed uptown to kick off a whirlwind 24 hours.
We checked into our hotel and after a cocktail at the rooftop bar, we made our way to our friend’s favorite restaurant, Porterhouse Bar and Grille.
It had been some time since we last saw our friend. After a warm embrace, small talk was quickly set aside for more reminiscing, much of it aimed at the fabulous story of our friend’s incredibly successful career.
We first met our friend in 1974, an African-American who came from a family of very modest means. He was raised by a single parent, his incredible mother Clarice, who dedicated her life to giving something to her children that all the best parents do – a life better than her own. To afford her son’s private education, it required hard work and sacrifice on the part of Ms. Clarice.
In those days, Curley didn’t have many African-American students. They may have accounted for 1-2% of the student body. The school pulled from many neighborhoods, some of which were tough. Although racism existed, I don’t ever remember it being a problem. Of course, that’s easy for me to say since I was part of the overwhelming majority. But I know, when I looked at Byron, I didn’t see color. I saw my friend.
I wish I could say the same for Joe’s grandfather, Carlo Picozzi, an Italian immigrant.
One Saturday afternoon, a few of us were sitting around Joe’s house, watching TV from his living room and playing some board games, after a few hours of football on the school lots of Herring Run Junior High School. Carlo, aka Pop, sat on the edge of the couch, very advanced in age and due to a few medical setbacks, he said next to nothing. That was the norm, and even if he could or wanted to speak, Pop didn’t know a word of English.
There was a knock at the front door and Joe answered.
It was Byron.
Suddenly Pop was as animated as “Robot” from Lost in Space, except he wasn’t chanting “Danger”, he was reciting some good old-fashioned Italian profanity. Who knows what Pop was thinking (I had an idea what he was saying), but we soon calmed him down and continued doing important things, like playing Strat-o-matic Football.
Before I met Byron, we learned later that he had a very bad stuttering problem and when he was 12 he was functionally illiterate. But by the time we became friends, I can’t say that it was ever that noticeable. Certainly, not to the point where it sticks in my memory.
Byron’s Mom and sometimes his brother, would occasionally drive us to school and I was always fascinated to learn about the differences of Byron’s upbringing compared to mine. Once, upon entering their car, it was painfully obvious, judging from the aroma in the car, that unlike me, Byron didn’t have a Pop Tart for breakfast. Ms. Clarice laughed and said it was soul food.
The explanation worked for me…
I would typically climb into the back seat, just behind Byron who sat shotgun. Byron was tall and lean, and sported a big Afro that seemingly scraped the car’s ceiling. He walked tall and was easily spotted in the hallways and corridors.
I don’t recall Byron being a particularly great student. He was always articulate, which made the later discovery of his stuttering problem a bit of a surprise. But when first and second honors were announced, his name was nowhere to be seen. His honors would come later.
Upon graduation, we parted ways. I stayed in Baltimore and went to school at what was then Loyola College. Byron went to Ohio Wesleyan University. We lost contact for many years.
I do remember that Byron expressed an interest in journalism. We studied the subject together at Curley under the tutelage of Mr. Rick Wetzel. It was an interesting class and it was the first time that I gave a passing thought to being a sports broadcaster. But the ambition was fleeting and I never took it seriously enough. It’s one of my few regrets in life.
Byron on the other hand, did take “the press” seriously. By the time he was 18, he wanted to become a journalist, even harboring the ambition of joining the on-air staff of 60 Minutes. A guy who was said to be a functional illiterate just six years prior was going to sit beside Mike Wallace?
Yeah, right! And I’m Paul McCartney.
But you know what? He did it!
Byron Pitts, supported by a loving family, guided by a quest to fulfill a dream and inspired by both, grew from an adolescent who struggled to string sentences together, to an accomplished journalist who would call Ed Bradley AND Mr. Wallace a colleague, Dan Rather a mentor and today he’s a co-anchor on Nightline along with Juju Chang.
So, you see, people can grow. They can overcome adversity. They can change their “spots”.
They can overcome a stuttering problem to win an Emmy at CBS News without ever forgetting where they came from.
When we left the Porterhouse Bar and Grill, Byron and his driver took us to Yankee Stadium. We were dropped off at the front entrance and escorted into Legends Suite where we could feast on an endless supply of lobster, filet, shrimp, chicken, sushi and decadent desserts. We sat 6 rows behind home plate in leatherback chairs.
After the game, we went back to ABC studios where Byron taped his portions of Nightline, followed by a walk through midtown to his apartment overlooking the Hudson River, where we had a few beers and reminisced a bit more.
As it neared 2AM, Byron had a driver pick us up to take us back to our hotel. I sat in the back of that SUV and thought of those mornings all those years ago, when Byron’s Mom or brother would pick us up for school. And I smiled.
I was so proud of my friend.
The next morning, we met at Café Luxembourg for breakfast and soon thereafter it was time for goodbyes. Byron embraced each of us, separately. Each time parting with, “I love you brother!”
Once again, a band of brothers. Always a band of Curley brothers.
Somewhere, Ms. Clarice was smiling.